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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

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December 2018

Trainees take center stage at 16th NIEHS Science Days

What began in 2002 as Science Day, to highlight the work being done at NIEHS by fellows and trainees, has grown into a two-day celebration of the institute’s research.

This year, NIEHS Science Days, held Nov. 1-2, featured 13 science talks by trainees, 89 posters, and the Mentor of the Year award. And that was just the first day. See accompanying story for highlights from Day Two, including awards for Fellow of the Year, posters, and oral presentations.

One NIEHS, focused on trainees

Luecke Hans gives presentation Science Days Steering Committee Chair Luecke welcomed participants to the science festival. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

In 2018, Assistant Scientific Director Hans Luecke, Ph.D., took over the event from Special Assistant Joel Abramowitz, Ph.D., who organized the first 15 years of Science Days. The event is an important part of the NIEHS culture, according to Luecke.

“Science Days reflects the One NIEHS concept,” said Luecke. “Coming in from another institute, I’ve been impressed at how all of the working parts of NIEHS relate to each other and work together. Science Days epitomizes that approach.”

This year, the steering committee worked to focus the proceedings exclusively on trainees. “We wanted to make sure that their science and their stories are front and center,” Luecke said. “There is a rich history of this event being focused on the trainees, who are so important to the institute and its scientific mission — this is an opportunity for them to have center stage.”

Haam Juhee and Williams Carmen Postdoctoral fellow Juhee Haam, Ph.D., from the Ion Channel Physiology Group, conferred with Carmen Williams, M.D., Ph.D., who moderated the day’s second session of oral presentations. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Mentor of the year

The prestigious Mentor of the Year award, voted on by the members of the NIEHS Trainees Assembly (NTA), was the first order of business, and the award went to Kelly Ferguson, Ph.D., head of the Perinatal and Early Life Epidemiology Group.

“Despite being in the initial stages of her career, Dr. Ferguson has proven to be a great mentor, not only to myself, but to many other trainees as well,” said Stephani Kim, Ph.D., who nominated Ferguson.

Ferguson was thrilled by the unexpected honor. “I had no idea, I thought this was something for people who have been mentoring for years or decades, and this is really my first class of mentees — so I was super surprised!” she said.

Van T. Erve Thomas, Ferguson Kelly, Kim Stephani, Rosen Emma Fellows Thomas Van’T Erve, Ph.D., left, and from right, Emma Rosen, and Kim congratulated Ferguson for winning Mentor of the Year. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Ferguson elaborated on her approach to mentoring. “I’m trying to acknowledge that my students may not necessarily want to have the same career trajectory as I do, and try to help them develop skills that will be useful in any subsequent activity, such as working in industry or doing more teaching or study management,” she observed.

Judgment day

Nearly 90 trainees were evaluated on their oral presentations and posters. The panel of judges included 20 professionals from across North Carolina, and an additional 59 judges from the other two NIEHS divisions — Intramural Research (DIR) and the National Toxicology Program (DNTP).

Jemma Strauss talk to someone Jemma Strauss from the Neurobiology Laboratory made a point about her poster to one of the judges. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The four sessions of oral presentations were chaired by representatives from four groups within the institute.

  • Division of Intramural
  • Division of the National Toxicology Program
  • Division of Extramural Research and Training
  • NIEHS Trainees Assembly
Paul Wade asks question at the mic Audience members, such as Paul Wade, Ph.D., from the Epigenetics and Stem Cell Biology Laboratory, asked the trainees many questions during the oral presentations. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Topics ranged from metabolomics to epigenetics, from male fertility to the role of the enzyme topoisomerase 2 in DNA damage repair.

“This format, where you get a chance to present your work to people outside your lab and branch, getting feedback from colleagues at premier research universities, is a really great experience for fellows,” said Luecke.

He noted that most of the talks were given by trainees in labs that are still approaching their prime, being run by early or mid-career scientists. Luecke said that so many young people doing exciting, cutting-edge science gave him a great sense of optimism about the future of research at NIEHS.

(Ernie Hood is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)


people gathered at a table During coffee breaks, folks participating in Science Days were thrilled and amused by the confectionary delights in the BioBake Challenge (see sidebar). (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
BioBake Challenge table The BioBake Challenge put NIEHS inventiveness to the test, including a taste test. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Xiaohe Yang, M.D., Ph.D. Xiaohe Yang, M.D., Ph.D., from North Carolina Central University, was one of the external judges brought in for the event. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
delicious cupcakes Administrative paperwork was depicted on delicious cupcakes, including frosting paper clips, at the BioBake Challenge (see sidebar). (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Abramowitz, Luecke, and Scientific Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D. From left, Abramowitz, Luecke, and Scientific Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D., agreed that day one was a big success. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
A collaboration of cupcakes illustrating an aspect of liver anatomy. A collaboration of cupcakes illustrated an aspect of liver anatomy. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
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